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Health Care Negotiators Head Home; Still Talking

The six bipartisan health care negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee adjourned their marathon talks Thursday evening with no last-minute breakthrough before the August recess.But the group, led by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), reported additional progress toward a consensus health care reform bill, and announced that a tentative schedule has been devised for teleconference meetings during the month ahead. Negotiations might also continue in person over the break, Baucus said.”This was a very good meeting,” he said. “We are all working very hard, our group of six, on lots of issues — I mean very hard, and really want to do this right.”The negotiators include Baucus, Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and GOP Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).Baucus said the group on Thursday focused on expanding access to health insurance to the poor via Medicaid, which is paid for jointly by Washington and the states. The Senators participated in a conference call with a bipartisan group of about seven governors to get their input.Although the negotiators said throughout the week that steady progress toward bipartisan legislation continues, the tenuousness of the talks was evident in comments Baucus made Thursday evening. After the six negotiators broke for the evening, Baucus told reporters that he might have misspoken earlier in suggesting that the group has reached an agreement on how to finance health care reform.”Earlier, I may have misspoke and gone a little too far when I was talking about the financing portion. I think I said it’s locked down. It’s not locked down,” he said. “But I feel we’re in a very, very good place. I just don’t want to over-promise anything.”Baucus has set a deadline of Sept. 15 for the bipartisan talks to generate a consensus bill, or he and Senate Democratic leaders will strongly consider abandoning the negotiations to pursue a partisan effort. Following Thursday’s meeting of the bipartisan Finance negotiators, Baucus convened a meeting of only the Democrats on his committee. Senators emerged from the meeting offering vague reports of progress.”We’re ascertaining some of the critical issues for which there are still challenges and trying to fashion how do we meet those challenges,” Finance member and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said. “I think there’s some good discussion on the table how to do it. So, we’re moving forward.”

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